Redlining, race covenants: The roots of Columbus' ongoing color divide

Columbus' historically-Black neighborhoods are still feeling the effects of redlining and racial covenants during the 20th century.

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
The Color Divide

For his 1913 book, The Color Line in Ohio: A History of Race Prejudice in a Typical Northern State, Knox College professor Frank U. Quillin investigated race relations in six Ohio cities. Columbus did not fare well.

“Columbus, the capital of Ohio, has a feeling toward the negroes all its own. In all my travels in the state, I found nothing just like it,” Quillin wrote. “It is not so much a rabid feeling of prejudice against the negroes simply because their skin is black as it is a bitter hatred for them.”

Quillin goes on to quote Ohio's assistant adjutant general: “The anti-negro feeling here in Columbus is at white heat. We are expecting an outbreak any day and are getting everything in readiness for it, so far as the military is concerned.”

After the Civil War, more and more Southern blacks began moving to Columbus, initially living in close proximity to whites. But the racial makeup of Columbus began to change most dramatically around the time of World War I, coinciding with the Great Migration, and the attitudes of whites changed along with it.

By 1930, according to census data, African-Americans made up about 10 percent of Franklin County. They lived in seven identifiable communities, but most settled on the East Side of Columbus in what is now known as the King-Lincoln District. Bronzeville, in particular, became a vibrant black community on the Near East Side. The neighborhood boasted black-owned businesses — retail shops, theaters, restaurants, nightclubs, medical offices, banks — and even its own unofficial mayor.

Julialynne Walker

“It was an all-class community, and it was conceptualized, designed and built by the community,” said Julialynne Walker, an East Side native who co-authored a 2014 report on African-American settlements for the Columbus Landmarks Foundation. “There were nightclubs, lots of music. People would come to town and play Downtown in the '30s and '40s, but they couldn't stay Downtown, so they came out here. There were certain streets with rooming houses for musicians. You knew to be quiet on those streets because they'd just gone to bed at 6 a.m.”

Close to Bronzeville on the Near East Side was the Blackberry Patch neighborhood, which was bulldozed to make way for Poindexter Village, the 1940 public housing complex that was razed in 2013 (save for two buildings) and is now home to the Legacy Pointe at Poindexter development. Though similarly rich with culture, the Blackberry Patch was a far poorer area than Bronzeville. Many of the dwellings were built from scrap pieces of wood and lacked electricity and indoor plumbing.

In his 2016 dissertation for Ohio State University's graduate program in history, Patrick Potyondy researched the history of Poindexter and the Near East Side. “The housing that African-Americans could access was indeed substandard in both quantity and condition,” Potyondy wrote, “and the city came to associate its black citizens with that squalor and overcrowding.”

Those associations, along with other well-documented stereotypes of the era, would have been plenty harmful had they remained mere attitudes. But attitudes and feelings have a way of shoehorning their way into policies, especially when it comes to housing.

“There appears to be something very off-limits about one's home,” said Jillian Olinger at Ohio State's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. “It's our private castle. We work hard to gain homeownership. It becomes one of our main assets. It's an opportunity to provide for our children. It's so fundamental, the promise of home. And we have this idea of what a good neighborhood is: good schools, safe parks and, of course, good neighborhoods are white and black neighborhoods are bad.”

Buzz Thomas

In The Color Line in Ohio, Quillin argues that African-Americans in the North were actually worse off than Southern blacks in the early 20th century. It's a sentiment that lines up with advice absorbed by Buzz Thomas, a 70-year-old Columbus realtor and South Side resident who grew up on the East Side.

“My grandfather used to say, ‘Son, you know the difference between the North and South, don't you? In the South, white folks don't care how close you get as long as you don't get too big. In the North, they don't care how big you get as long as you don't get too close,'” Thomas said. “I'm 10 years old thinking, ‘This man is crazy.' But that old man had it down.”

By 1936, the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC), a federal agency, created “Residential Security” maps of major American cities, including Columbus. The maps shaded neighborhoods in one of four colors to indicate their grade; green was “best,” blue was “still desirable,” yellow was “definitely declining” and red was “hazardous.” Citizens living in red areas, which were almost always populated by African-Americans and immigrant communities, found themselves “redlined” by banks and other lending institutions. Even though Bronzeville was a wealthier area than the Blackberry Patch and Flytown (located just south of Goodale Park), the HOLC redlined all three areas.

In March, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) released a study that compared the HOLC's redlined neighborhoods with their current economic and social conditions and found that, despite some heavily gentrified areas, the segregation and economic inequality in those areas persist today. According to the NCRC, 82 percent of Columbus' “hazardous” neighborhoods are low-to-moderate income today — higher than the national average of 74 percent. And 89 percent of Columbus' “best” neighborhoods are middle-to-upper income; they're also 91 percent white.

While the South showed the least change in redlined areas between 1936 and today, the NCRC reported that “the Midwest closely followed the South.”

“It's the hidden part of our history up here,” said Jason Reece, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State. “Everyone thinks of segregation and they think of the Jim Crow South, but you look at places like Detroit, Cleveland and Columbus — all these cities in many ways were just as segregated as Southern cities were. … There were a lot of reprehensible things going on in the Midwest in terms of supporting segregation. We've done a good job of scrubbing a lot of that history.”

A row of houses in Columbus

Racially restrictive covenants kept Black homeowners out of the neighborhood

Before redlining, lenders and homeowners used restrictive covenants to create and maintain majority-white neighborhoods. In Ohio, the use of racially restrictive language in home deeds took off during the Great Migration and continued for decades. From about 1920 to just before World War II, Reece said that two-thirds of all the subdivisions platted in Central Ohio had restrictive covenants placed on them.

In the 1923 deed of one Clintonville home, among language that forbids the operation of a slaughterhouse and the sale of “intoxicating liquors,” the owner is also forbidden to “sell or lease said premises to a person of African descent.” Nearly 30 years later, a 1950 Upper Arlington deed is even more restrictive, forbidding the owner to sell, lease or rent “to a person or persons of any race other than Caucasian.”

“What a lot of this is about is the anxiety and angst over changing demographics. It's not surprising that we see covenants take off here when the Great Migration takes off,” Reece said. “It's this notion that somehow by mixing with each other we were ruining neighborhoods. This was a dogma that the entire real estate system bought into.”

What gave the dogma staying power is that it became policy. In the Federal Housing Administration's 1936 underwriting manual, the government provided advice to assessors. “The Valuator should investigate areas surrounding the location to determine whether or not incompatible racial and social groups are present, to the end that an intelligent prediction may be made regarding the possibility or probability of the location being invaded by such groups. If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes,” one section stated (emphasis added).

Redlining, then, reflected and exacerbated an already-existing reality. “I think there's a misconception in the general public. The redlining maps didn't create this system,” Kirwan's Olinger said. “They nationalized it and codified it.”

This nationalized bias began to play out in America's burgeoning highway system. Redlined neighborhoods, not coincidentally, were often targeted for highway projects.

When Julialynne Walker was born in 1950, she lived on Jefferson Avenue, which then would have been part of the Near East Side. “One of the rites of passage when we were growing up was to be old enough to walk from Long Street and Mount Vernon to Lazarus [Downtown],” she said. “But that was snatched away from us, because you couldn't walk Downtown anymore.”

In the 1960s, the construction of I-71, I-70 and, later, I-670, gutted the Near East Side, demolishing homes and forcing residents to relocate. “Not only did you put a freeway through minority areas, but then you walled it off and made one way in and one way out,” Buzz Thomas said. “Once you did that, you cut the economic carotid artery of that neighborhood, and it began to die.”

The Civil Rights Movement also began to offer more opportunities in other neighborhoods, and African-Americans who had the means began moving elsewhere. But white flight persisted, often as a reaction to busing for school integration and the real-estate practice of blockbusting, in which realtors scared white residents into selling their homes when black homeowners moved into the neighborhood.

As a boy, Thomas and his family moved north from East Side apartments on Clifton Avenue to a duplex in the Shepard Addition in 1958. They were one of the first black families to live in the neighborhood. Soon enough, white residents took off. Thomas' family moved again, buying a home on Nelson Road. “Realtors were going door to door saying, ‘Hey, a colored family just bought down here. You wanna sell?'” he said. “That's how we bought our first house, because people were dumping properties.”

In 1963, Thomas attended Eastmoor High School on Weyant Avenue, and since his family only had one car, they wanted to buy a house that would allow Thomas to walk to school. “So we get in the car — my mother, my stepfather, my sister and me. All I remember about this realtor was he was a white guy and really tall,” Thomas said. “He takes us out to Weyant Avenue. We get out of the car, we're walking up the front steps to the house, and the guy opens the door and goes, ‘Oh, no no no! I'm not selling to coloreds!' Boom, slams the door.

“What I remember most was no one said a word. We just all got back in the car and drove back to Nelson Road. My stepfather told the rest of us to go in the house. He talked to the realtor, and we never went out to look at a house again.”

Challenges to the housing covenants

In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer that the use of racially restrictive housing covenants is not enforceable in court. But the aforementioned 1950 Upper Arlington deed restricting ownership to Caucasians proves that old, racist ideas die hard. In fact, in UA the practice carried on for years after Shelley v. Kraemer. In 1971, a Franklin County suit charged the Northwest Arlington Homeowners Association trustees, including John Pace, who was also president of King Thompson Realty and chairman of the Ohio Real Estate Commission, with blocking a black man from buying a home in Pace's all-white subdivision. The trustees were found guilty, and the association was dissolved.

“It was found that the Northwest Arlington Homeowners Association for 22 years was operating as a nonprofit organization, and that it was used by the defendants to discharge their private prejudices,” wrote Diane Kelly Runyon and Kim Shoemaker Starr in their 2017 book, Secrets Under the Parking Lot.

More:The story behind the human remains found at Upper Arlington High School

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race in home sales or rental agreements. Residential segregation declined in its wake but never fully went away.

“Even into the '80s, there's still language about the introduction of ‘contentious groups,'” Olinger said. “So explicit race language might be taken out, but then there's coded language, and we see that even today.”

“One of the challenges with the act is that it still doesn't do anything to block the exclusionary zoning practices that are out there,” Reece said. “We have a Fair Housing Act, but if they're not caught discriminating by race … they can still discriminate by class. We've learned that if they do that with zoning, they get the same effect. This is why we have so much economic segregation.”

The Community Reinvestment Act, which was passed in 1977 to help counter redlining by reducing discriminatory credit practices and by encouraging lenders to meet the needs of borrowers in low-income neighborhoods, was also hugely important, but the effectiveness of the legislation is still debated.

The Near East Side, for instance, languished for decades. Recently the neighborhood, rebranded the King-Lincoln District, has seen a resurgence in development and revitalization, including the restoration of the Lincoln Theatre and the Legacy Pointe at Poindexter mixed-income apartments. In 2014, the Long Street and Spring Street bridges over I-71 reconnected the neighborhood to Downtown. But the area has yet to fully recover from the disinvestment that took place over decades.

The South Side, too, is still reeling. While the entire area was not historically black, much of it was labeled hazardous or declining, likely because of its mix of races and social classes, with Jewish, Russian, Hungarian and African-American communities putting down roots close to their manufacturing jobs at Buckeye Steel Castings and Federal Glass. Longtime resident Anne Stewart remembers the South End (as natives refer to it) as a great equalizer.

Over the years, though, the neighborhood became more divided.

Is 'redlining' over?

“There's a modern, 21st-century version of redlining that has a devastating impact on the South Side of Columbus,” said Rev. John Edgar, pastor of the United Methodist Church for All People and head of Community Development for All People. “I don't know what color ink they're using. I'm not saying it's redlining. But the appraisal industry draws lines. They have factually negative impacts on what side of the line you're on, and I would contend they are unjustifiable. The clearest one is Parsons Avenue.”

Since 2005, Community Development, which partnered with Nationwide Children's Healthy Neighborhoods Healthy Families initiative in 2008, has renovated blighted and vacant homes and built new homes throughout the South Side. But when appraisals for the homes came in, Edgar noticed a clear divide.

“Parsons Avenue is a line, and when we develop properties on the east side of Parsons, the appraisers will not pull [comparable properties] for west of Parsons, no matter how close the house is to Parsons,” Edgar said. “It unfairly, artificially deflated the value of our property.”

Parsons Avenue runs north to south through the South Side, and on the northern end, just south of Livingston Avenue, Schumacher Place sits to the west of Parsons and Southern Orchards to the east. The two neighborhoods are strikingly similar. “Basically, it's all the same,” Edgar said. “When it was built, no one was thinking there was any meaningful difference between what was built in Schumacher Place and what was being built in Southern Orchards.”

There's one noticeable difference, though. “East of Parsons is predominantly African-American, and west of Parsons is predominantly white,” Edgar said.

“The Berlin Wall is less of an obstacle than Parsons,” Thomas told me on a recent four-hour driving tour of the South Side. Not long ago, an appraiser stood next to him at a house located east of Parsons. “By that time Nationwide Children's had put a million dollars into the properties over there, but he's standing on the front porch looking around going, ‘Wow, this is a declining neighborhood.' And I'm going, ‘No no no, let me give you numbers and show you,'' Thomas said. “But the appraisal was cut.”

There's progress, though, thanks in no small part to the more than 100 homes Edgar and Nationwide Children's have rehabbed or rebuilt. Driving through the South Side with windows down, Thomas points to dozens of renovated houses: “That's a hospital house. … John [Edgar] did that one. … That one is a private developer.”

A Nationwide Children's security vehicle drives by, and on the corner of East Whittier Street and Heyl Avenue, a worker hammers a giant sign into the ground that reads “Now leasing” in front of the Residences at Career Gateway, a Community Development for All People complex of apartments and townhomes with income restrictions. The center will also provide workforce training for residents and the surrounding community.

With property values rising, appraisals have begun to improve. (Even with Community Development's commitment to keeping rehabbed homes affordable, gentrification is a current challenge.) And driving through the South Side, it's apparent that some streets have become more racially mixed. But the east-west Parsons divide has been difficult to fully dismantle. The Berlin Wall didn't come down in a day.

“It's gotten better. And yet this gap is still pronounced,” Edgar said. “If you averaged it out, there is probably $100,000 difference in value simply on which side of Parsons Avenue you live on.”

The value difference, Edgar said, is not a result of racist appraisers, but rather the result of unconscious associations. “Appraisers would argue that they're objective, but the categories and factors that they are using have intertwined within them aspects that have their own implicit biases,” he said.

“People say, ‘Well, it's the market.' But the market isn't just this thing floating in space. There are people and values and decisions that inform it,” said the Kirwan Institute's Olinger. “There's decades of explicit, derogatory language about the value of African-Americans in terms of credit risk, and over time the way implicit mental associations are made is this repeated exposure, and that's how they become implicit.”

'To repent is to do it different and do it better'

Columbus has come a long way from the city Frank Quillin described in 1913. But there are uncomfortable parallels to today.

In one of his classes at Ohio State, Reece uses a copy of a nativist newspaper from the late 1800s as a teaching tool, and in the last couple of years it has felt eerily relevant. “In the 2016 election, you could have taken the stuff right out of this newspaper, and it basically was the same debate fodder going on,” Reece said, quoting the paper's reference to “foreign paupers who are draining our public resources.” “Historically, every time we go through one of these periods of demographic transition, there's always this vehement, horrible backlash. … I think this is the American experience.”

On a recent Friday morning, downstairs from Edgar's Parsons Avenue office at the Church for All People, dozens of community members of color sit around tables waiting for the church's Free Store to open. Blue Ikea bags hang on hooks in front of a giant yoke mounted to the wall. It's a visual reference to a passage in the book of Matthew from the New Testament. “Take my yoke upon you … and you will find rest for your souls,” Jesus says. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The New Testament was written in Greek, and in those books of the Bible the word metanoia is often translated as “repentance.” “Metanoia,” Edgar explained, “means to turn around 180 degrees. So to repent isn't so much, ‘I feel bad, and I'm sorry for what I did.' It's turning around and doing it different. There's a bunch of stuff we do individually and collectively as a society that we need to repent of. But to repent is to do it different and do it better.”